Professor Kaarthigesu Sivathamby (1932-2011): A class perspective

Published on July 26, 2011   ·   No Comments
by S. Ratnajeevan H. Hoole/Sri Lanka Guardian

(July 20, Jaffna, Sri Lanka Guardian) Professor Karthigesu Sivathamby, B.A. Cey., M.A. (Tamil) Cey., Ph.D. (Drama in Ancient Tamil Society) Birmingham, a giant of our times has passed away. In general people abroad are full of praise for him. The Hindu declared him “an outstanding Tamil scholar, specialising in the social and literary history of Tamils, culture and communication among Tamils, Tamil drama and literary criticism” and pointed to his authoring about 70 books and 200 research papers in Tamil and English and being accepted as a visiting academic at the University of Madras, the Institute of International Studies, Chennai, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Tamil University, Thanjavur, and the University of Cambridge. Others in India described his writings as gifts to Tamil literature and the Left movement, and termed him a great socialist and rationalist.

But in death as in life among Sri Lankan Tamils, Professor Sivathamby is being dogged by criticism. How so despite his singular achievements not only in Tamil but also as a social scientist? Caste is a vital ingredient in understanding this great man. When caste explains a lot about Sivathamby, many do not want to speak of it saying that it is of a bygone era. But Sivathamby’s life shows that caste still is a living institution amongst us. Those who oppress others by using caste do not wish to speak of it. Those who are oppressed by caste do not wish to speak of it for fear of giving themselves away as we all try to be Vellalas. Between the two, there is a loud silence.

Like all of us, Karthigesu Sivathamby was a man made by his experiences. But he was much bigger than his circumstances allowed him to be. His caste background ensured that he would be denied many offices for which he was qualified and entitled. At the time the Hindu Board Schools not only denied education to the non-Vellalas but actively worked against education for non-Vellalas as when they shut down (within 10 years of its founding) the night school begun by the Rev. Canon S.S. Somasundaram and Miss Muriel Hutchins of the CMS in Ariyalai East. It is thanks to Zahira College that Sivathamby received a sound school education leading him to university.

Professor Sivathamby rose as a scholar and person despite these obstacles of which he was most mindful. He told me of witnessing a caste attack as a boy. It was the 1930s in Vadamaratchi. He was bathing in a pond like most poor people. A lower caste woman came by wearing a blouse and holding an umbrella. Some men came along, beat her up, broke her umbrella and in the ultimate umbrage tore off her blouse. That stayed permanently etched in his memory.

His reaction to caste necessarily has to be different from that of a Vellala. In his words, paraphrased as I recall, “If you say something profound questioning society in Jaffna, they will not argue the point you raise but refocus the discussion on ‘Who is saying it?’ and ‘Why is he saying it?’.” He urged caution on me for that reason. Just a week before his death, he sent me a private communication asking me to be quiet for a while and to leave Jaffna as he felt it is unsafe. As a leader, because of the caution that was his natural lot, he did not speak up as much as he would have wanted to. But speak up he did!

In his articles he has cautiously questioned many of our myths and fictions claiming Navalar and Ramanathan to be great Tamil leaders rather than the sectarians they were. That cost him much. Thus for example, you will find in his essays in the Social Scientists’ Association, a short statement that Ponnambalam Ramanathan wanted lower caste children to be denied schooling and, if at all admitted, to be seated on the ground outside the classroom. (This I note was a slight improvement on Ramanathan’s mentor Navalar, who as a student walked out of Central College with half the students to protest the presence of a Nalava boy in 1847). The denial of seating was all that Sivathamby could write of without causing too much damage to himself; but what he did write was a lot for the times, for he was thereby opening up a debate on who he was and why he was saying what he said.

In a less cautious moment when Sivathamby was put on the Navalar Commemoration Committee in the 1970s, he ran into a storm with a leading member of the committee with an O.B.E. telling him that “it is high-time to stop researches of this type on Navalar.” I never found out who this OBE was but Sivathamby, refusing to tell me who told me that it was easy to find him out.

To me, the little that Sivathamby said was volumes. Few had dared to touch on these taboo topics. How much more can a person suffering the iniquities of caste say in a society soaked in caste and its restrictions?

But we continue to have all these criticisms of Sivathamby. In his last years in Colombo he received the recognition that evaded him in Jaffna, especially as the patron of the Colombo Tamil Sangam. For receiving so many invitations to speak at a function or merely to honour an event through his presence, he is criticized as someone seeking publicity. For accepting a dowry, which most of us Tamils did and do, he is criticized. Even the most high and singular honor he received at the World Classical Tamil Conference held in Coimbatore in June 2010 as speaker and session chairman has been turned into a criticism. Those who did not receive the honour wanted him to boycott the conference citing political reasons. Naturally he dithered because of how it would be used against him but finally decided to attend and use his position to promote Tamil as a Classical language. The drama as someone put it was indeed drama but the drama borne of the professional jealousy of mediocre Vellalahs.

M.K. Eelaventhan at the 2010 Toronto Tamil Studies Conference publicly called Sivathamby an opportunist, a charge that can be easily made against anyone who is working to do things for his community. The real opportunists who reviled him in life are drawing on this rationalist’s reputation by now holding poojas in temples as if he had been one of them. These attacks during his lifetime go on even in death.

To me and the many others especially the younger researchers whom Karthigesu Sivathamby encouraged and befriended, he will always be a great man well ahead of his times. As for his faults, who is faultless? He had no faults that most of us do not have. We will cherish his friendship, memory and lasting works forever.
Read More:

Dr Hoole opens the can of ugly caste worms

Almost all the scholarships to study in Rome were allocated to students from Kayts thanks to the Bishops who thought Vatican was their personal property. The boarders at HFC and St Patricks’s were from Kayts and most did not pay. It is worthy to note and I am sure past pupils would vouch for the fact the Kayts students arrived in these institutions as virtual yobs and left with polished English and education to match.
by Pearl Thevanayagam/Sri Lanka Guardian

(July 21, London, Sri Lanka Guardian) takes absolute honesty, exceptionally great mind and much soul searching to write openly about the injustice meted out to Professor Sivathamby. Prof. Ratnajeevan Hoole’s article The Class Perspective recently in the Sri Lanka Guardian will no doubt open a can of ugly worms wriggling through the academia, public institutions and politics not to mention societal intercourses such as marriage and mingling in general.

It is a crying shame and an indictment on civil society that the wealth of knowledge and intellect of Prof. Sivathamby, Mr Sebastian Rasalingam and many more scholars and professionals were obfuscated and suppressed all because they were seen as belonging to lower castes.

Perhaps the Sinhalese are indeed more civilised after all because Lord Buddha preached equality 2,500 years ago and many are practising this concept shedding the ancient caste system and moving with the times.

From the French revolution to the spawning of communism around the world, new religions and of course insurgencies; these are by products of one class claiming supremacy over others they perceive as underclass.

The simple truth is no one can predict the class or race into which one is born and no one can be proud of being born into this caste or that since one’s birth is purely accidental. But there will always be one class superior to yours. I recall my Uncle Sellathurai proudly saying he would not allow the queen to eat at his table because she eats beef!!!. This from an uneducated never do well, lazy layabout.

Caste in India is banned in most parts of India by legislature but in Sri Lanka caste is inherent in the daily lives of every person especially among Tamils. Attending a convent I counted among my friends who belonged to different castes and was able to hear some interesting perspectives of their respective castes. My friend who belonged to the Nalavar caste told me that they had a kingdom in Jaffna purely for Nalavar and they were actually given this name because they were Nallavar (good).

Since as children we were made to be conscious of one’s caste I too developed an automatic exclusion for those my family regarded as untouchables. For instance in my teens I quite fancied this handsome boy called Julian who lived in the neighbourhood and attended St Patrick’s, my brother school, until some one told me he belonged to a low caste. To my surprise I stopped fancying him because I was brain-washed by this notion of caste consciousness. And I can tell you honestly I still do not know to what caste I belong since there had been such a hotch-potch of different castes due to marriages outside the family.

My father’s cousin had seven children by his legal wife but it was open secret he fathered several more through the woman (perceived to be low caste) who came to pound rice at his house. He generously gave them his name and some lands. This is not an exception but it is tolerated the masters of the household in Jaffna often had affairs with servants and the mistresses looked the other way as long as their stature in public as the legal wife is assured and they are well cared for.

The sons too systematically had sex with servants (many under-aged) and this exploitation largely went un-noticed and even encouraged so that they are well-initiated into the rites of manhood before they enter into permanent wed-lock through an arranged marriage with handsome dowries.

In this day and age they would be hauled up in court for paedophilia and adultery and listed as sex offenders.

And this mindset among Tamils cannot be shaken off so easily. If we are to come out of our narrow prejudices we need to educate the elders and this education should be included in future curriculum in schools as to how castes came about and how Tamils kept on exploiting this system for their own aggrandisement and benefits.

It was the late Manik Sandrasagara who proudly proclaimedthat he could tell a person’s caste from their noses. But Manik had a squat nose in a square podgy face and he is of mixed parentage. He should talk.

Leaving these snippets aside, until Rt Hon. Bishop Savundranayagam became the head of Jaffna Catholic diocese the post was held exclusively by Kayts clan which the mainland Jaffnites called the islanders. They somehow wriggled their way into seminaries and convents and obtained virtual monopoly over the Catholic churches and schools and promoted their relatives.

From Fr Peterpillai to Bishop Emilianuspillai Bishop Leo and Bishop Theogarajah, the Bishop’s House became their fiefdom. I still recall Rev. Sr Josephine Tynan, the Irish principal of Holy Family Convent Jaffna, when I was playing tennis with her admonishing a nun from Kayts asking her for an admission to her relative from Kayts. Mother Josephine as we used to call her turned red in the face and admonished, “One more request from Kayts for school admission and I am kicking you out”.

Almost all the scholarships to study in Rome were allocated to students from Kayts thanks to the Bishops who thought Vatican was their personal property. The boarders at HFC and St Patricks’s were from Kayts and most did not pay. It is worthy to note and I am sure past pupils would vouch for the fact the Kayts students arrived in these institutions as virtual yobs and left with polished English and education to match. They even mastered the knife and spoon with which they ate even string-hopper breakfast and it was thanks to the initiation at HFC Boarding that they can now hold their own with the West in etiquette.

I do not begrudge them their betterment in their lifestyle but it is how they plundered lands from those people whose caste they cited to do so which irks me. I hope we have more serious discourse on this caste system and bring the subject to public scrutiny. Far too many minds of the young have been traumatised by this caste curse and far too many girls remained spinsters and boys bachelors since caste barriers stood between love and marriage.
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